Evangelism, Baptisms, and Politics (Crazy I Know!)

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Last week we completed our Story Witnessing Workshops. What a joy to see 260 people from 50 or more churches, including many pastors, trained to listen well and connect Bible stories with the lives of those who need a Savior. Every community needs more witnesses to Jesus and His love. People will listen to a Bible story that relates to their life. The Prodigal Son, Nicodemus, the Woman at the Well, and the Good Samaritan have universal appeal. More than that, they are powerful. Like a lightning bolt, God’s Word penetrates the mind and heart as no other word can. And people love stories. You can use these Bible stories to share Jesus with others.

Something to rejoice over is that 236 more people followed Jesus in believer’s baptism in the past year than in the previous year in our NWBC churches. In 2015 our churches reported 1,915 baptisms, up from 1,679 in 2014 and 1,643 in 2013. We praise God for this. There is nothing more important than loving God, loving our neighbors and sharing Christ with them. We will not go far wrong if we do these things.

Many are discouraged and disgusted with this year’s election politics. Count me in that number. But if nothing else, political elections, though important, remind us that our greatest needs will never be met by government. Indeed, our citizenship in heaven is that which is most precious to us. And this too can strengthen our witness to our neighbors. Like us, they are likely dismayed by the 2016 election process. But the resurrection of Jesus Christ demonstrates that our personhood is eternal. Therefore, our relationships “in Christ” are eternal. I will know my loved ones in heaven. Heaven provides us with a forever family. I do not fear that when death strikes my loved one, I will never see them again.

The resurrection of Jesus means that all God’s people will be raised and we will keep our personhood. I will know my wife. I will know our sons. Death will not end our relationship. That is a precious part of the blessed hope. We do not find this hope in our earthly citizenship. We do not find it in our job or career or any other thing.

So when our neighbors are discouraged by life or politics or poor health, share with them the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Help them see that all who know and love Jesus will be raised from the dead to eternal life. Tell them that in heaven we will know each other, and that we don’t have to say “goodbye” when a Jesus follower leaves this life. This is our hope. This is our life. This was the hope of those who suffered under Nero and Hitler and ISIS, and this was the hope of those who prospered under Washington and Jefferson, or your favorite president.

One final thought – summer provides wonderful opportunities to share Christ. Vacation Bible School and Bible camps are among the best opportunities, but also remember that many relocate in the summer months. Keep your eyes open to new move-ins, the new kid on the ball team, and the new customer or coworker. New people are open to new friendships. Let’s be their friends for Jesus’ sake. It is a good day to serve the Lord!

Ten Goals for Your Church in 2016

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A few years ago a pastor announced a dream, or goal, to his church that didn’t really sit well with the folks. His dream was for the church to build a worship center that would seat ten times their current average attendance. The church wasn’t growing, so his dream wasn’t connected to accommodating recent growth. It was more of a “if we build it, they will come” kind of dream.

As I thought about his dream, or goal, I realized that there were several reasons his dream never achieved “lift off” with his people. First, it wasn’t connected to anything that God seemed to be doing through the church. They weren’t reaching many lost people, baptisms were low, and transformational growth in people wasn’t really happening. Thus, his dream wasn’t connected to God’s work in the church, or at least it wasn’t apparent that it was. Second, his dream did not address the spiritual needs of the church. It didn’t address the need for more prayer, more evangelism, or more leaders. It also didn’t tap into the spiritual needs and hunger of the people. It didn’t tie the people into the mission of God in their families and neighborhoods, or the nations beyond. Third, and this might not be fair to that pastor (thus no names or locations), but I wondered, “Whose ego does it stoke to build a huge worship center?” It didn’t stoke the ego, or stir the imagination, of the people in the pew. They would be asked to pay for a building for which the need was not apparent. Now, if the church was growing and spiritual transformation was happening on a regular basis, if they were experiencing the excitement of new births through their ministry, they might have gotten excited about building facilities to accommodate a growing ministry. But absent that, it appeared that the pastor’s dream wasn’t transferred into the hearts of many others.

I thought about the above story in a recent discussion I was having with a young pastor. He and I were talking about setting goals for their church for 2016. In light of that, I would like to suggest 10 goals for you to consider in 2016. Set goals to:

1. Pray for lost people by name. Pray for as many people as you have on Sunday morning. If you average 40 on Sunday morning, develop a prayer list of at least 40 lost people. Make this a part of your church’s prayer strategy. The people you pray for will be friends and family members of your church.

2. As a part of your prayer ministry, and outreach ministry, set a goal to reach the children and grandchildren of the attenders of your church. Connect your outreach ministry, and all that you do, to reaching children and grandchildren. Teach parents and grandparents how to share their spiritual stories and testimony with their own children, and lead them to do it. The MY316 evangelism resources provided by the NWBC can help you teach your church to do this.

3. Reach the children in your neighborhood and community. The ruffian down the street might marry your daughter or granddaughter one day. Lead him to Jesus first! These kids will work with you or for you. They will become teachers and business leaders and political leaders. They will be your neighbors and your children’s neighbors. Reach them for Christ early in their lives and build a better community as a result.

4. Train 10 percent of your church (average Sunday attendance) to share the gospel, and lead them to actually go into the community and share Christ. Many churches stopped weekly evangelistic visitation without replacing it with some other method of taking the gospel into the community. Find some way to connect those you train with lost people, lead them to share the gospel, and then share witnessing stories with your church.

5. Train XX number of new Bible study leaders. Small group Bible study leaders reach people. The more leaders you have the more people you will reach, serve, and deploy in ministry.

6. Start XX number of new Bible study groups. Goals 5 and 6 replace a goal to increase your average attendance. Attendance goals are not helpful if they do not include goals to train leaders and start small groups. A church’s average weekly attendance is about 10 per small group. Churches that average 70 in Bible study attendance have 7 small groups, for example. If you want to average 100 people, you need at least 10 small groups.

7. Train your church, not neglecting the children, in the principles of biblical stewardship. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Christian people must develop generous hearts toward God and His work. We must be taught to live within our means and not rob from God in order to indulge a lifestyle we cannot afford. As a part of this, invite the Northwest Baptist Foundation to conduct a “will and trust” seminar at your church. Seventy percent of our church members do not have a will, which is dangerous. Also, many continue to invest in the Kingdom after they are in heaven by setting up a trust that will finance Kingdom causes until Jesus returns. There are many good charitable causes, but Christian people need to fund Christian work that will glorify God.

8. Send XX numbers of people on mission this year. The NWBC has a partnership in East Asia, including a trip to serve 1,300 missionaries and their children at a retreat in Thailand next summer (July 30-August 6 or 11). This is but one opportunity to send church members on mission. Email Sheila Allen at sheila@nwbaptist.org for more information on this mission opportunity.

9. Provide quarterly community service opportunities for your church. By this you will bless your community and grow your people. Service to others should be a “first step” for new Christians and young people because we grow when we help and serve others. Jesus deployed His disciples in ministry long before they were “ready.” He knew this was necessary for their spiritual growth. He then debriefed them so that they could learn from their experiences.

10. Challenge every church member to develop relationships with non-church people. You could challenge them to develop one new relationship, or two, but get them focused on looking outside their Christian circle for a new friend.

I am sure that you can come up with other goals, including some that are better than some of these. The main thing is to focus on goals that build people, connect people to others, and connect people to God. If we do these well, we will reach more people for Christ, and we might have to move to a larger facility, or start a new worship service, or even a new church. But attendance grows as people grow spiritually and look outside the church walls to other peoples, people who need Jesus.

A Divine Appointment with a Same-Sex “Married” Man

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Kevin is a bright, friendly young man that my wife and I met by divine appointment on a long flight last week. Though I am cautious about ascribing activity to God, Paula and I both believe that He wanted us to meet this young man who is in a same-sex marriage with another man. Here’s how it happened.

About a month ago I bought a new book by retired Southern Baptist missionary William “Bud” Fray. Bud even signed the book for me. I love missionaries and Bud Fray served long and well in Africa. I took his book on a trip last week, reading it on the flight over. My wife wanted to read it on the return flight, and that’s how we met Kevin. When he saw the title of the book, Both Feet In, he said that his father told him he should read that book. Kevin’s father is a Roman Catholic who lives in Florida, but this Catholic man read a new book by a Southern Baptist missionary, published by a small publisher (New Hope), and told his homosexual son that he ought to read it! This opened a huge door for Paula and me.

It turns out that Kevin attends church each week, a Catholic church. His same-sex partner is a Methodist chaplain who “preaches” weekly. I asked Kevin what his faith meant to him and what it does for him. He spoke mostly of the importance of the rituals, which have long been a part of his life. He also said that he finds serenity in an hour spent away from technology and going through a religious routine that has been unchanged since his childhood.

Paula and I shared with Kevin what Jesus means to each of us, describing who Jesus is and what He did to bring forgiveness of sin and the hope of eternal life. At some point Kevin brought up the subject of homosexuality, basically saying that he had come to terms with “who he is.” He was not argumentative or militant in the least, but he did repeatedly referred to his partner as “my husband.” When he learned that I am a Baptist preacher, rather than get defensive or turned off, he seemed to think that God had brought us together so that I could “answer some questions that he has.”

At one point he did ask me what my view on the matter of homosexuality is. I told him, “Really, my opinion on the matter isn’t important.” I continued by saying, “I learned long ago that if I could talk someone into something, someone smarter than me could talk them out of it.” I then asked him if he had ever read the New Testament. With enthusiasm, and perhaps some embarrassment, he said, “No! I haven’t. I’ve read verses. When the priest speaks I read the verses he reads. But I’ve never read it.” So, rather than tell him my view of homosexuality, I encouraged him to read the New Testament. I said, “Kevin, read asking God to show you Jesus. Pay attention to who Jesus is and what He did for you and me. What I think isn’t important. But what the Bible says, and who Jesus is, is of the greatest importance.”

Kevin really liked that. We gave him Bud Fray’s book. We exchanged business cards. And he said that he will let us know when he has read Bud’s book and the New Testament. I pray that Kevin will be delivered from unbelief as the Holy Spirit guides him into truth through the Scriptures.

Repentance is never easy. It is not easy for me. Pride and selfishness can so easily rise up within me. The Cross of Christ challenges and confronts these things in me. The temptation to self-sufficiency, prayerlessness, and a host of other vile and ungodly filth are ever “crouching at the door” of my heart. Kevin will have to deal with his own sins and weaknesses. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is powerful! He can penetrate and pierce the thickest and toughest of human hearts. He can enter the minds of human beings, minds dedicated to bane and stupid and disgusting things, and transform them for His noble purpose. Rescuing and purchasing sinners from the dark domain of this world’s prince, and bringing them into His bright kingdom, is what Jesus does daily. He can do for Kevin what He did for me.

This was my first such conversation since the U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage. I must confess, I can get very angry when I think about many of our nation’s leaders and where they have taken us. When I read about, and listen to, those advocating for the normalization of sin, and demanding that we celebrate such sin, I want to punch someone. I’m just being honest. But when I visited with this same-sex married man, the first I have ever met, rather than feeling anger, I felt deep sadness for him. Here is guy who is very likeable, not militant, and I don’t say this lightly, but my heart broke for him. My wife felt the same way.

We are praying for Kevin. We will have some level of correspondence with him. He needs Jesus. He needs rescuing. He needs some Christian friends to love him and help him when Jesus reveals to him what repentance will mean. Come to think of it, those are things I needed too.

How to Talk to a “None” About Jesus

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Perhaps you know that the Northwest is home to many nones. Nones are those who say they have no religion, which includes more than 30 percent of those living in the Northwest. Forty-two percent in Portland and 37 percent in Seattle say that have “no religion.”

What does this mean for those sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in the Northwest? First, it means that many of our neighbors have no faith system that they must “leave” to come to Christ. Leaving Islam or Buddhism presents multiple difficulties that do not exist for the nones. Coming to Christ from Islam means breaking with family and community, as well as Islamic teachings. It can even put one’s life in jeopardy. By contrast, those with no religion are not “leaving” a faith system as much as they are filling a void, i.e. the God-shaped hole in every human heart. Many of those coming to Christ are coming from this kind of background. In China, for example, tens of millions are coming to Christ from atheism and agnosticism.

Secondly, Jesus Christ provides the only satisfying answer to the deep needs of the heart. These include forgiveness, love, and hope, but I want to speak of two which you might not have considered, but which exist for every person, including the nones.

First, every human being yearns for justice, but without our God, justice cannot be had. On June 17, 2015 nine people were murdered during a Bible study at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. In Syria and Iraq, thousands of Christians, and others, have been slaughtered by ISIS. These and other atrocities demand that justice be done. But how do you secure justice for those so grievously wronged? They are dead. Even if the killers are caught and punished, how does this help the victims? If there is no God, a God who is holy and all-powerful, so that He knows what is right and has the ability to produce the right, there is no ultimate justice. Without a just God to whom all must give an account, this world is reduced to “winners and losers.” Winners are those who get the most “stuff” and live a long and happy life. Losers are those who don’t get the “stuff,” and whose lives are cut short or impaired through bad health or bad luck (like being born in Afghanistan!). Ultimately we all lose because death comes to all.

To be clear, if there is no God, there is no justice, and therefore Adolph Hitler was a “winner” in comparison with his victims. Hitler died at age 56. For many years he enjoyed great power and luxury. By contrast, Anne Frank, one of Hitler’s victims, died at age 15. She suffered terribly under Hitler’s tyranny, as did millions of others. Little children, young men and women, were slaughtered by this evildoer. If there is no God, and no hope of ultimate judgment and resurrection and eternal life, then there is no true justice for the most evil among us, and their victims are life’s losers. This is a reality that nones and all unbelievers need to confront. Jesus Christ provides the only hope for justice and fairness.

Secondly, every person wants to live in peace, but without our God, there can be no peace in the truest sense. In the Middle East, we are not hoping for peace. Worldly diplomacy and military engagements are merely intended to end the killing and produce what might be called “peaceful bigotry.” The goal of the United Nations is not to make the Palestinians and the Jews love each other. The goal is simply make them stop the killing and live beside each other. If the killing stops we will call it “peace,” but really it’s a “peaceful bigotry” because there is no love. The same could be said of those fighting in Iraq, or even in the streets of some American cities. Our political and judicial system is meant to keep order, not produce peace. Only God can produce peace because peace requires a heart-change. In the human heart there is a longing for peace, but without Christ the best we can hope for is a peaceful bigotry.

We are privileged to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, which at the same time is one of the world’s great mission fields. About four percent of Northwesterners are in church on Sunday. But we have a powerful Gospel. We have the only message that addresses the great needs of the human heart, including the needs for justice and peace. It is a good day to share the gospel of Jesus Christ in the Northwest.

Friendship Matters: Loving Our Homosexual Neighbors

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I spent the early part of this week at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) meeting in Columbus, Ohio. The highlights were the Tuesday evening prayer service in which thousands gathered to pray for spiritual awakening in our lives, our churches, and our nation; followed by a missionary commission service on Wednesday morning. Although these were the highlights, the matter that has captured national attention is the stand we took upholding traditional marriage as defined and described by the Bible. This subject was timely, and necessary, because of the imminent Supreme Court decision on whether same-sex marriage will be deemed a constitutional right. If it is deemed a “right,” there will be serious implications for all believers, churches and religious institutions. Indeed, we are already seeing this happen in the Northwest, where same-sex marriage has been made legal in Washington by popular vote.

The Northwest Baptist Convention of churches has already taken a step to address this matter by affirming the Baptist Faith and Message as our statement of faith. The BF&M describes God’s plan for marriage as a union between one man and one woman, for life. As an NWBC member church, your church is protected, in part, by this statement of faith. Ashley Seuell, attorney with the Northwest Baptist Foundation, has drafted a document that can provide further help in this matter.

The discussion of same-sex relationships that I found most helpful at the SBC was a panel discussion which included a university professor who had lived as a lesbian, but whom Christ saved, delivering her from her unbelief, and ultimately also delivered her from her homosexual lifestyle. Her name is Dr. Rosaria Butterfield and I want to briefly describe for you what she said.

First, she said that friendship matters. Her journey to Christ began through friendship with a pastor and his wife. They ate in each other’s homes. They welcomed her into their lives. When she decided to write a book about why Christians “hate” people like her, they encouraged her to read the Bible as part of her research. She took the challenge and read the entire Bible seven times in two years. The result of her time in God’s Word was that she wanted Jesus. She wanted the Jesus she came to know through the Scriptures. She was powerfully drawn to Him. In describing her salvation she said, “I wasn’t converted out of homosexuality. I was converted out of unbelief. Then God went to work on the rest.”

One of Dr. Butterfield’s primary lessons for the church is this: We need to be an accessible community where unbelievers are welcomed and friendship is real. Friendship matters. Friendship in which there are no conditions is vital to reaching people. Butterfield said that the homosexual world provided her with community, and it was critical to her conversion that the pastor and his wife provided community as well.

As I heard her speak about the need for Christians to truly befriend unbelievers, I thought of the late British missionary Leslie Newbigin, who spoke of two conversions. First, unbelievers are converted to the church, or some part of the church. Then they are converted to Christ. He meant by this that people first ask questions like, “Do I like those people? Do I want to spend time with them? Are their lives attractive?” Only when they receive satisfactory answers to these questions do they listen to the gospel message that we proclaim.

A matter related to friendship is the words we use to help deliver people from unbelief. Butterfield said, “Your words should be no stronger than your relationship.” That is a wise statement. As Christians, we are commanded not simply to speak the truth, but to speak the truth in love. Love is communicated through relationship. To say that we love all people is theoretical. It is philosophical. Love requires relationship, which brings us back to Dr. Butterfield’s point that the church must be accessible and friendship with unbelievers must be real. This is the context in which we become legitimate and our words will find consideration in the hearts and minds of unbelieving friends.

Same-sex marriage will remain an issue in the Northwest, regardless of what the Supreme Court does, because Washington residents have voted for it. Churches will have to deal with it, as will individual Christians because of how it affects the work-place, and even our own families. Already one of our churches lost their place of worship because the owner of the building objected to the church’s view on same-sex marriage. But these challenges do not remove Jesus’ command that we love our neighbors. Friendship provides the avenue for love, and, we pray, for transformed lives.

Helping Others Discover Jesus, Part 6 – Friendship

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The Pharisees asked Jesus’ disciples: Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9:11-12).

Paul said: Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible (1 Cor. 9:19).

One of the striking things about Jesus and His disciples was whom they chose to befriend. In short, they befriended those who needed God, and who knew they needed God. The basis of their friendships, as revealed in Scripture, was the spiritual quest to know God. Did Jesus have other interests in common with the “tax collectors and sinners” with whom He dined? Perhaps, but Scripture does not record chit-chat between Jesus and sinners, or between Paul and sinners. Jesus didn’t befriend people because of their common interest in the Jericho Juggernauts soccer team! Jesus befriended those who needed God, and we see the same in His disciples.    

Amy Carmichael, the legendary missionary to India, wrote a little booklet titled God’s Missionary, in which she shares nuggets of experience and wisdom. One that I most remember is her discourse on friendship and the importance of extending true friendship to the people with whom you are sharing the gospel.

Carmichael said that the Indian people knew whether you loved them and cherished their friendship based on how you spent your “free time.” She said that missionaries who only spent time with Indians during “working hours,” and spent all of their non-working hours with other missionaries or westerners, sent the message that the Indians were not their true friends. Not only did they send this message, it was one that was easily read by the Indian people, who considered themselves the “projects” of these missionaries. They were the subject of their work, but not their true friends.  Friends are those with whom you recreate and enjoy dinner and “after-hour conversations.” She further observed that missionaries who developed true friendships with the Indian people were better accepted and loved by the Indians, and their ministry was more fruitful.

As we help others discover Jesus we must ask ourselves, “Who are my friends? Are all of my friends followers of Jesus already? Are they all church members? Do I have meaningful friendships with unbelievers?” And related questions are, “How to I determine who my friends are? Do I seek to make friendships, true friendships, with people who don’t know Jesus?” And, “Is my friendship and love for my unbelieving friends unconditional, or is it conditioned on their coming to Jesus soon and very soon?”

Friendships are typically formed around shared interests and values, but for those who would help others discover Jesus, our ambition to make disciples must permeate every aspect of our lives, including our friendships. Friendship with a sinner puts you in a position to guide them to Jesus as life happens to them and to you.

Sociologist and historian Rodney Stark says that the growth of the early church to majority status by the 4th Century was largely aided by their friendships with sinners, especially during times of plague and disaster. The recent mudslide in Oso, WA, in which 43 people died, has resulted in many others coming to faith in Christ as Christian friends in the communities of Oso and Darrington ministered to their unbelieving friends and neighbors. One of the first people I helped come to know Jesus was my college roommate, a close friend. Currently I am building a friendship with a young man whose life has spiraled downward because of poor choices, and I’m praying that God will use our friendship to bring the prodigal home.

Do you have friends who have yet to reach Jesus on their spiritual journey of discovery? If not, let’s make some new friends!